Deep Soap: Ken Corday’s Book Reveals The Days of His Life

Ken Corday and Peggy McKay (Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

Ken Corday and Peggy McKay (Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

Soap Book Club: Ken Corday’s The Days of Our Lives

When I learned that ‘Days of Our Lives’ Executive Producer Ken Corday was writing a book, I assumed it would be filled with breezy anecdotes about the cast and popular storylines.  Instead, Corday has crafted a compelling memoir, The Days of Our Lives, of a family that both created soap operas and lived one that will appeal to readers with an interest in the history of the genre.

The story begins not with the launch of DOOL, but with Corday’s older brother Charles witnessing a suicide, the beginning of a lifetime of troubles for him.  The story of the doomed Charles whose failures parallel Corday’s successes frame the book.  DOOL was created by Corday’s parents, Betty and Ted.  He evokes the era, just two generations ago, when it was scandalous for Jews and Catholics to marry.  It turns out that Ted Corday was born Ted Cohen, and changed his name, like so many iconic soap characters, after moving from his native Canada to New York. Ted was a lawyer-turned-theater director, who was instantly smitten with the Irish Catholic Betty, who was pursuing an acting career while paying her bills by working as a secretary at an ad agency. They traveled in Bohemian circles, befriending great actors like Paul Robeson.

Watch Friday’s episode of ‘Days of Our Lives’ below:

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After working as a director and producer on Irna Phillips’ radio soaps and the early years of the television version of ‘Guiding Light,’ Ted and Phillips successfully pitched DOOL to NBC persuading the network that a soap set in a small town would be an interesting contrast to other soaps that were set in urban areas.  I never thought of Springfield or Oakdale as bustling metropolises, but apparently that’s what they were considered back in the day.  DOOL’s real selling point, however, was that it would be the first soap to shoot in color.  NBC was owned by RCA and wanted to give viewers reasons to buy color televisions.  Color was the HD of the 1960s.

The most surprising tidbit about DOOL’s development: NBC also asked Ted to come up with a companion show for DOOL. He pitched a show with an African-American cast, which NBC rejected.  I wonder if there was any institutional memory of that concept when NBC aired ‘Generations‘ back in the 1980s.  Another interesting piece of trivia: Betty Corday used her advertising expertise to pare down what was to be a lengthy opening to the the famous,”Like sands through the hourglass, so are the Days of Our Lives.”  Without her wisdom, there would have been soaps named As The Earth Turns, The Edge of Darkness and The Young & The Impatient. Yikes. Ted tragically was diagnosed with cancer soon after the show premiered, leaving Betty, who had no official producing credits, to run the show.  She proved to be brilliant at it, obviously, and eventually passed the reins to her musician son.

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Corday is surprisingly candid about the show’s recent struggles, revealing that he was forced to rehire James Reilly as headwriter by NBC during 2002 in order to keep the show on the air.  Corday claims he was skeptical that Reilly would be able to competently headwrite both DOOL and ‘Passions.’  He also acknowledges that Reilly’s Salem Stalker storyline did serious longterm damage to the show’s credibility with fans, though he refutes the rumor that the Melaswan portion of the story was a last minute rewrite to bring back all of the characters who were killed off.  I was also surprised that he has good things to say about Hogan Sheffer whose brief tenure as headwriter resulted in low ratings and a nasty firing during the writer’s strike.  Not mentioned: former co-Executive Producer Ed Scott.  He also goes into detail about the show’s recent draconian budget cuts and the treat of cancellation, including his decision to fire Deidre Hall and Drake Hogestyn.

A lengthy portion of the book is devoted to Corday’s misspent youth as an aspiring rock star.  It might be a tad self indulgent, but it turns out that Corday had more quintessential 1960s and1970s experiences than Forrest Gump. He:

Was in a band called Lucky Mud.  On the one hand: ha!  On the other hand, it’s a better name than Ke$ha.
Was part of the opening act for Jimi Hendrix’s last concert
Lived in a Hawaiian commune
Witnessed Black Panther leader Huey Newton empty his gun into a nightclub ceiling

Corday, who based on the book’s credits did not use a ghostwriter, is a good storyteller.  Betty would be proud.  The book is not perfect.  I quibble with his repeated references to his family as middle class and struggling for money.  He grew up attending Manhattan’s finest private schools before moving to Beverly Hills.  The chapters where he fondly writes about the show’s cast read like fansite posts.  But this is a thoughtful, sophisticated memoir that far surpassed my expectations.

I had the opportunity to ask Corday a few questions at DOOL’s recent press event.

How gratifying was it to learn that ‘Days of Our Lives’ was picked up for another year after being told that NBC planned to cancel the show?
It was very gratifying because when the president of the network says,”It’s going off the air in March 2009,” and then presents us with a deal that’s a real choker, he was challenging the show, and basically daytime: Can you do it as well as I think you can do it for a lot less? It’s either that or bye bye.  And here we are.

You are the only show that is growing in ratings from a year ago.
We are 10% up from a year ago, the highest ratings we’ve had in three years. This is at a time when every other show on NBC had no growth.

To what do you credit your success?
Sticking with the formula. Don’t bring in all new faces and get rid of all the old ones. It was tough saying goodbye to some very popular characters, but it’s great actors, great story.  You ask people in the midwest, people wherever they are, why do you watch ‘Days?’ “Oh, I watch for my stories.”  It’s not necessarily Deidre Hall or Renee Jones or this dress. It’s “I want to see my story.”  That’s the secret of the show.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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